There is a song by Sara Groves called “Add to the Beauty” that I try to listen to at least once every morning–either while I’m getting ready to leave home or while I’m driving up I-75 to work. Over the years this song has become a daily reminder of some of the things I value most.
The chorus goes something like this:
Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are.
And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
It fits with so many of my goals–personal, teaching, writing–the song applies to just about every aspect of life. Well, this song has been on my mind a lot lately, and not just because I listen to it every day. It’s been on my mind because it ties in so perfectly with what I’ve been reading over the last few weeks.
Last Monday I finished reading Gilead, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marilynne Robinson. I’d heard about this book for ages, purchased it a long time ago, and finally decided to pick it up off the pile and read it.
The very fact that this novel won a Pulitzer should tell you something about the quality of Robinson’s writing, but I’m being completely genuine when I say that I’ve never read a book with such beautiful and thought-provoking prose. I know it’s only September, but I’m willing to go out on a pretty big limb and say that Gilead will be my top book of 2017, and maybe 2018, 2019, and 2020, too.
But it’s not just the gorgeous prose that makes this book great–I also love how seriously the text handles religion, spirituality, faith, grace, and the Christian life. So often in our culture, characters in TV shows or books who are Christians are typecast as goody-two-shoes, holier-than-thou, hypocrites who hold to old-fashioned virtues and don’t let anybody have any fun. This book is the exact opposite. Robinson paints a vivid picture of a genuine life of faith and the role of the church in our society. It’s absolutely breathtaking, and it definitely fits what I mentioned a few months ago when I wrote about what I see as the difference between Christian genre fiction and books written by Christian authors.
The book tells the story of John Ames, an elderly pastor in a small town who has been diagnosed with a serious heart condition. The novel is a long letter from Ames to his son, telling the young boy all about Ames’ views on life, his faith, and his relationship with other people in the town–most notably the troubled son of Ames’ friend. The scope of the story is small–a tiny town, a few characters, not a lot of drama or over-the-top action. But it’s this small, ordinary world that forms the foundation for a story that touches on so much more than ordinary life.
In her essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” Flannery O’Connor writes that “the longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene.” That’s exactly what Marilynne Robinson has done here–she’s taken the whole world and wrapped it up in one man’s testimony. As Ames explains his life story, he also speaks candidly about his views on just about everything. It’s so full of hidden gems that I read this book super slowly, pausing to digest every sentence before moving on to the next one.
So how does this book connect to the Sara Groves song I mentioned at the beginning of the post? Well, there’s a line in the bridge of the song that simply says, “This is grace, an invitation to be beautiful.” When I finished reading Gilead, I sat for a long time thinking about how beautiful the prose was and how thankful I was for the gracious gift of fiction. That seems like an odd statement, but I really believe that God has graciously given us the ability to tell stories to each other.
Think about it–what would your day look like if you couldn’t tell a story? If you couldn’t share the most frustrating moment of your day or embellish some crazy adventure you had in high school? What would the world look like if we didn’t have books, TV, or movies? If we didn’t have stories, we wouldn’t have any way to reflect on what it means to be human. We wouldn’t have a way to categorize our experiences and sift through details to determine which are most significant. If God hadn’t given us this ability, we wouldn’t have a way to grasp the gospel, and we wouldn’t be able to understand how He is the author and perfecter of our faith. Our God is a storyteller, and he’s made us in his image to be storytellers, too.
This thought even comes up in Gilead, and I love the way Robinson phrases it. Ames says:
And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.
(57, emphasis mine)
Just picture it–our lives here as the “epic of the universe,” the stories and testimonies we tell again and again into eternity.
In Exodus 28, God instructs the craftsmen he has filled “with a spirit of skill” to make Aaron’s holy garments “for glory and for beauty.” If you ask me, that’s exactly what Gilead is–it’s a story of small glories and earthly beauty, and it’s a gift. Fiction like this is a gift because it points us to the true story that is bigger than all of us–the story that is playing out all around us every day on the pages of history. It’s one of the reasons why I continue to read fiction, and that’s why I will always view stories as a gracious gift from the author of life.
Thanks for bearing with me for a rather philosophical post!
You can listen to “Add to the Beauty” here.